Reality TV is an oxymoron — but you knew that. The producers stage scenes, create false conflict by pasting disparate conversations together, and remove all the boring bits that constitute normal life. Not even the people are real. Reality contestants don’t have pasts, they have ”backstories.” They have ”plots,” not lives, and they trade their personalities for ”personas.” So why do it?
According to Carolyn Parkhurst, it’s because they’re desperate to be seen — even if the view is false. That was a central theme of her hit debut, The Dogs of Babel, told largely in flashbacks by a man who tries to teach his Rhodesian ridgeback to talk so he can learn how his wife died. Lexy, the late wife, knows her husband doesn’t really see her — from the manic depression he mistakes for passionate spontaneity to the snakes tattooed on her scalp. He, however, doesn’t realize it until her death forces him to solve the puzzle of her life.
Lost and Found is lighter and chattier: It ain’t heavy, it’s a beach book. The campy but never cartoonish characters are on a scavenger-hunt reality show like The Amazing Race, each cast for general prurience. Among them: mother-daughter team Laura and Cassie, who got on because Cassie was secretly pregnant, revealing the child she’d give up for adoption the night she was born; Abby and Justin, ”ex-gays” now married and trying, trying to hold it together; and Juliet and Dallas, former child stars hoping to reignite their careers.
Parkhurst, an astute student of reality TV, makes clever use of the genre’s conventions. Individual players have their own chapters, not unlike show ”confessionals,” and because they’re constantly being recorded, we don’t miss a second of satire so on-point, you’d swear you’ve already seen this series. In a nifty twist, the teams must switch partners, so latent lesbian Cassie pairs with Juliet. Says the ex-child star: ”[Cassie’s] smart and she’s funny, and more importantly, I think audiences are going to like her. I’m still deciding whether flirting with her is the right way to go; she’s a little fleshier than I’d like, and I have to think about how that’ll look.”
And we’re back on that theme, being seen, in a novel peopled by the visually impaired. How could Laura not see that Cassie was pregnant? How can Abby not see that Justin’s barely staying straight? How can Juliet not see how calculating and grasping she appears? Because you can’t observe life as you’re living it. You can only watch when it airs at 9 p.m./8 central. But as Cassie says, ”When the show finally airs, I’m sure there will be some generic travelogue footage edited in, and it’s bound to get all mixed up with my own impressions. Which can I trust, my own memories or the pretty scenes on TV?” Oh, honey, read a book.